THE BLOG

Loneliness: An Appeal for Understanding

17/10/2016 11:57

Loneliness is not an illness. Like dehydration or hunger it is the body's call for something crucial it lacks, though like an illness it can be debilitating to an individual, stripping them of their happiness and self esteem, not to mention potentially dangerous physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure. It is recognised and certifiably dangerous, and loneliness isn't nearly as talked about as it should be.

In a 2015 study (Thomas, Jennifer, Insights into Loneliness, Older People and Well-being, 2015) by the Office for National Statistics it was noted that those who reported a high level of loneliness also scored much lower life satisfaction, happiness levels, and sense that things were worthwhile, and also a much higher rate of anxiety. Therefore its effects on an individual's health is potentially disastrous, clearly damaging to an individual's mental health and state. This same study suggested that loneliness had more of an effect on the young than the old (except those aged 80+ where there are high rates of loneliness) which goes against the usual understanding that the elderly are more socially isolated. In the study those aged 65 to 79 scored higher in life satisfaction than those younger, and those older.

Thankfully there is a support system for breaking through the isolation felt by the elderly, many charities exist for this reason. However there is little to no similar support for those younger, save for helplines such as Samaritans. This needs to be recognised and changed.

The dangers of loneliness are once again supported by a study by Brigham Young University who determined that those who live alone or suffer a lack of social connection have an increased mortality rate of up to 32%. These findings seem so shocking, that loneliness seems to be as big a health concern as obesity or alcoholism yet is much less talked about.

There seems to be an unspoken understanding that adults are not allowed to talk about loneliness. A child who has trouble making friends may complain about loneliness. However an adult, one with a job, or one pursuing further education, may not but why?

We are well aware that there exists a stigma surrounding those with mental health problems. People struggle and don't often talk about it, or try to avoid talking about it. The same applies to loneliness.
There is a dangerous social stigma, however unlike mental illnesses, mere acknowledgement of the stigma, and the encouragement for people suffering through loneliness and social isolation to speak out, would do a great deal to wholly eliminate the problem. The problem is not one of chemical imbalances, or brain chemistry, but merely the lack of genuine human connection (as opposed to contact).

One of the biggest risk factors is if people live alone, something that is increasingly common. It is assumed that social media can function as a substitute, enabling people to reach out and contact others even when they're not physically close, however, this may not actually be the case. The idea that social media and texting is a substitute, can mean that people are less likely to reach out and engage with others in person.

As you would imagine, those who live alone tend to be the most lonely. However it is perfectly reasonable to assume that these people are engaging with others online and through social media, yet though they have human contact (though, clearly not physical), they don't have connection.

This lack of connection seems also the reason why people can feel loneliest while in a crowd of people. The potential for contact is vast yet there is no genuine connection. Being surrounded by people, some in groups or couples, can only reinforce this feeling of isolation.

Humans are fundamentally social animals. Human interaction is the reason why we have survived and thrived, every single advancement we have made has been done through co-operation, and interaction. As much as one person needs water to survive, people, as a group need each other to survive. Therefore it's obvious why loneliness has many recognisable health risks, as mentioned above.

Loneliness, it seems, is a significant and unmentioned public health risk. Its dangers are many, known and researched, yet unlike many similar health risks, it can be resolved relatively simply. Its dangers need to be more widely known, with some degree of support structure to help break through social isolation. There have been some recent misguided attempts at this; badges have been handed out in the London underground encouraging people to talk to each other, but the underground is by far the worst place - busy, noisy and full of people in a rush.
Although there is some provision out there, it is by no means sufficient considering the scale of the problem.

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